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14th September

First Published in The New York Sun, September 14, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

Most students in New York City returned to school last week. No matter what type of school they attend the biggest change they have seen in recent years is not in the classroom, where more often than not teachers follow the same failed methodologies that, over recent years, have brought American instruction to its present sorry state.

Nor are the changes in school governance of much significance to their young lives. The most common mistake public policy types make is equating educational reform with structural change. Experience suggests that rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic will not change the outcome.

Alas, the biggest changes are to be found in the school cafeteria, where children are being subjected, nationwide, to an extreme diet resulting from a mass hysteria over a press driven “childhood obesity epidemic,” spurred on by vegetarians, health nuts, and activists targeting America’s food industry.

These are things that enraged the late Julia Child, best known for her cooking shows on television and her classic cookbooks, as an activist against fad diets and health scares.

Whole milk, once deemed essential for healthy growth, has been banished from the schools. It has been replaced, for the most part, not by the 98% or 99% fat free varieties that retain much of the original flavor, but by tasteless, watery skim milk. Fruit juice, once thought of as a source of vitamins and fiber, has been removed from menus or watered down, due to its high sugar content.

Fat, from which most food derives its flavor, has been banned. Salt, an additive used for millennia, is similarly proscribed. Sugar, of course, is an absolute no-no, so much so that parents in many schools are no longer permitted to bring in cupcakes to distribute to their child’s classmates in celebration of their child’s birthday.

Even talk about sugary treats has been banned from some schools as recounted by Diane Ravitch in her book, “The Language Police.” A story about a birthday party at which cake is served was excised, lest children be vicariously exposed to “unhealthy” eating habits.

All this would be most upsetting to Julia Child, the person most responsible for America’s awakening to the enjoyment of good eating. When she burst upon the culinary scene in the 1960s, most Americans got their sustenance from prepared foods coming from cans or the freezer. Julia Child, through her television shows and books played a seminal role in changing that.

Two recently published books on Child’s life discuss in some detail her disdain for what she termed the “food police.” One of these, “Julia Child” by Laura Shapiro is a straightforward biography. The other, “Backstage with Julia” is an intimate memoir by Nancy Verde Barr, a former aide who became a close friend of Child’s.

The two books are remarkably consistent, and indeed all accounts of Child’s remarkable life seem to agree that this was a remarkably authentic person. The persona we became familiar with on television over so many years was exactly the same Julia known to her friends and family.

Julia Child may have been a liberal Democrat politically, but when it came to taking personal responsibility for the food she ate, both feet were firmly planted in the libertarian camp.

Laura Shapiro sums up Child’s philosophy: “The very idea that people could look upon food as medicine, that they might sit down to eat thinking only of their arteries or their risk of cancer appalled Julia; and she fought it long and hard. ‘The dinner table is becoming a trap rather than a pleasure,’ she often said, and she once pointed out that she’d never met a ‘healthy, normal nutritionist who loves to eat.’”

In Child’s pantry, butter and cream were irreplaceable ingredients, not to be feared. When McDonald’s was forced to stop frying their potatoes in beef tallow (presumably substituting what was then considered the “healthy” alternative, trans fats), she registered a complaint with the company, because the old fries “were so good!”

She was contemptuous of health food and organic farming, supported the use of MSG, had no problem with irradiating food, and even supported the genetic engineering of food as “one of the greatest discoveries” during the last century.

Ms. Barr, in her memoir, recounted Julia Child stopping for a hot dog, “one with everything” at a highway road stop outside of Boston at 10 in the morning.

Butter, cream, fried foods, and hot dogs notwithstanding, Julia Child lived just two days short of her 92nd birthday, enjoying an active life almost until the end. Some of her best television was produced when she was well into her eighties.

One of the things that would surely delight her is the shifting sands around what is considered healthy one day but not the next.

But she surely would have been outraged that children are now being taught to fear rather than enjoy and savor what they eat. Hopefully we will come to our senses and return balance to our school cafeterias.

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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